Friday, February 22, 2013

State of the Education Union

Education and accreditation leaders were not shocked when, in his State of the Union address, President Obama said this about higher education: “Taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize higher and higher and higher costs of higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep their costs down, and it’s our job to make sure they do.” This is a theme we have been hearing repeatedly from the Administration.

But the “supplemental document,” released after the speech, did contain a very big surprise for the accreditation community. In that document the White House said: “The President will call on Congress to consider value, affordability, and student outcomes in making determinations about which colleges and universities receive access to federal student aid, either by incorporating measures of value and affordability into the existing accreditation system; or by establishing a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results.”

Right now, in order for their students to receive federal financial aid, a college must have institutional accreditation from an agency recognized by the US Department of Education.  (This is different from program accreditation which is what CAAHEP does). The main purpose of the recognition by the Department is to assure that the accreditors are serving as “gatekeepers” for that federal aid. But with rising default rates on student loans and ever-escalating costs for a college degree, the Administration clearly believes that those institutional accreditors are somehow failing in their duty as gatekeepers.

There has been a lot of debate in recent years in the accreditation community about how we should balance our roles as the cop who assures certain outcomes versus promoter of quality and quality improvement. That debate will no doubt continue.

But what is of particular interest to me is that the underlying philosophy in the Administration’s position seems to be that federal money should be used only to train students for jobs. If you want to spend $40,000 on a liberal arts degree that won’t prepare you for a profession, you have that right. But not at taxpayers’ expense.

Many of us in the “Boomer” generation started out with English or philosophy degrees before we ultimately settled into a profession. But given high unemployment rates and the fear of the looming crises over student loan defaults, this would appear in the minds of many to be a “luxury” we can no longer afford.